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Opinions of Friday, 18 February 2011

Columnist: Ata, Kofi

The State of the National Address, Protocol and Diplomatic Blunder in Ghana

Good morning, Mr Vice-President,

Good morning, Madam Speaker,

Good morning, Honourable Members,

Good morning, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good morning, My Brothers and Sisters, so began the Presidential Sate of the Nation address in Parliament yesterday, in the presence of the Chief Justice, the Diplomatic Corps and the immediate past President of the Republic. Why were they left out in the salutation?

In affairs of the Sate and on certain important occasions, getting the salutation right is as important as the state herself, especially, in a democratic society when the three arms of government (The Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary) are present at one place in official capacity. Recognition of the three arms of government by each other is critical for the rule of law and democratic accountability. It is also about respecting and acknowledging the authority and the roles of the office (even if not the individual office holder) by each arm of government amongst themselves. I am sure, the President, who is a law professor is in no doubt, aware of this. It is therefore imaginable for a President not to acknowledge and respect the office of the Head of the Judiciary, the Chief Justice at such an august event. I was shocked beyond belief when I listened to the audio of the President’s speech on Joy FM’s website. In fact, what horrified me, was that, some Honourable Members of the House (possibly, the minority) reminded the President of the presence of the Chief Justice and her omission in the salutation but sadly, the President paused for the noise to die down and continued without ameliorating his blunder. I wonder how the Chief Justice felt at that material moment when the President who is the head of the Executive refused to acknowledge her presence, despite being reminded of the presence of the Head of the Judiciary.

This is one of the most serious constitutional affronts to the separation of powers enshrined in Ghana’s constitution (though there is no specific constitution requirement on this matter or blunder). It is more of a matter of respect for protocol and for the office. BUT, why did the President do it? I have read on Ghanaweb and from other Ghanaian media organisations that the President has apologised for the blunder. It is claimed that it was a mistake; that he is human and as all humans we make mistakes. I do not know how Ghanaians will take this explanation.

I know both from my work in Ghana and UK that getting protocol and salutation right at certain functions and events are very important. In fact, sometimes, the salutation is left uncompleted by the speech writer as its order is dependent on who is present at the time of delivering the speech. But with a function such as the State of the Nation Address to Parliament by the President, the norm must be adhered to if delivered by the President in the presence of the Speaker, Honourable members and the Chief Justice. Other must invited guests include Diplomats, Traditional Leaders and Members of Council of State. Former Presidents could be invited as a matter of respect. So, how can the President make a mistake by disrespecting and ignoring the Office of the Chief Justice?

Media coverage of important functions and events in Ghana, where a President is in attendance portray a picture of a weak and incompetent State Protocol. There have been a number of confusions at such events and functions in recent times, including two incidents at the Cape Coast Fetu Festivals (one each under Kufour and Ata Mills). However, I have no doubt that this blunder was not caused by State Protocol. The other possible reason is the men and women around the President. What some people may be unaware is that, what (political) leaders say in public is sometimes highly managed and controlled by those immediately around him or her, especially in democratic societies. That is, the so-called men and women behind the scenes, also known as advisers and special assistants. Again, I doubt if any of the men and women at the Castle could have persuaded the President to ignore the Chief Justice, the Diplomatic Corps and the Former President.

Reading in between the lines of the President’s speech, the total disregard for the presence of the Chief Justice may not be a mere mistake. The Chief Justice led the inquiry into the MV Benjamin Cocaine case in Ghana, prior to being appointed Chief Justice and the President announced in his speech that that case will be reinvestigated. Perhaps, the President felt uncomfortable with acknowledging her presence when he was about to make an announcement that could potentially cast doubt on her work and possible lead to her potential demise. Could this be the beginning of a plan to implement the infamous statement, “there are many ways of killing a cat?” In other words, is that the beginning of the cleansing of the Judiciary by the NDC government? I hope not and that I am completely wrong in reading too much into this omission or error by the President. It could be a mere coincidence.

I am sure a lot of NDC supporters and sympathisers may view my logic as mischievous, whilst those of the NPP will probably agree with me. Unfortunately, I do not like the politics of either party as they are very divisive. I am expressing my views in the interest of Ghana, nothing more, nothing less. I must admit that the MV Benjamin Cocaine case is an unfinished business that is hanging over the image of Ghana and I wholeheartedly support the decision of the President to reopen the matter. My only issue is, why did the President refuse to acknowledge the Head of the Judiciary at a constitutional function that required the presence of the Chief Justice?

What about the Diplomatic Corps, the High Commissioners and Ambassadors who represent their governments in Ghana? To invite them and ignore their presence is very unfortunate. Some, if not many of these Excellencies are the very ones who make it possible for Ghana to secure development assistance and loans for infrastructure development and to support Ghana’s annual budgets. So how can the President show such disdain to them? Could this affect Ghana’s or the President’s relationship with them and the respective countries they represent? Time will tell.

Perhaps, in my view the presence of the former President was not acknowledged because there is only one president in Ghana. How do you salute a former President (his former Excellency, Mr Former President or what)? Well, Your Excellency, Mr President, remember that one day, your will also be the ex. How would you feel if your presence in the House is not acknowledged by your successor/s? I am certain that, the error will be seen as the President learning on the job. The Diplomats will make up their own mind and pass their views on the error to their governments. We hope that there will be another Weakileaks in the years to come.

I have heard the Minority in Parliament describe the speech as the most divisive. I may disagree with them (though I must confess that, I never listened to any of the former Presidents’ State of the Nation Addresses). I thought it was better delivered than the previous ones. However, I was worried about how the President responded to the “all die be die” statement or declaration by Nana Akufo Addo. I expected the President to be a unifier on this matter as Obama did after the attempted assassination of the US Congress woman. Yes, it was right to send a strong message but it was equally important for the President to unify the nation in his speeches and actions. Unfortunately, neither his speech nor actions on this day (by refusing to respect and acknowledge the office of the Chief Justice and ignoring the former President of the country, who is from the opposition party) is definitely, not unifying.

Mr President, this is what your salutation should have been:

Mr Vice-President, Madam Speaker, Your Lordship the Chief Justice, Honourable Members, Your Excellencies, the Former President Mr Kufour, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, My Brother and Sisters, ....

By Kofi Ata

Cambridge, UK